By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Online Magazine
Ever wondered how humans will look in 50 years time? An exhibition in London predicts the answer may lie in the digital world.
Artists have parodied the perfection of a digitally enhanced face
When Nicolas Cage and John Travolta swapped faces in Hollywood action film Face-Off, most viewers thought they were watching a far-fetched fantasy.
But US scientists have already carried out face transplants on dead bodies donated for medical research. They are now awaiting approval to do the same on living people with disfigurements.
A new exhibition at London's Science Museum raises questions about the implications of this technology for society.
Future Face, which opened on Friday, asks if the widespread use of digital enhancement to "improve" faces in photos suggests the kind of face people will choose to have in the future.
Already Britons spend more than £225m on cosmetic surgery and 25,000 people undergo treatment each year.
The majority of these operations are for vanity, although some have a medical purpose.
Redesigning a whole face is still some time off but maybe not too far, as the exhibition reveals.
The University College London has developed a 3D scanning tool which enables surgeons to experiment on faces without actually touching them.
It scans the patient's face and maps more than 50,000 coordinates to an accuracy of about half a millimetre.
This can become a 3D model for trial and error to seek out the best changes, but it cannot yet redesign a whole face.
Will the quest for physical perfection make us look more like robots?
French performance artist Orlan has probably gone as far as anyone.
She has publicly undergone plastic surgery several times as part of her act, to try and look like a computer-generated ideal made up of several classical images of beauty, including Mona Lisa.
Beyond these surgical possibilities, research into DNA engineering suggests there could be a time when what we look like will be genetically programmed.
The Future Face curator is Professor Sandra Kemp, director of research at the Royal College of Art and a leading academic in visual culture.
"I don't mean the exhibition to be a warning because it's interrogative, raising questions, but I hope it will make people pause for reflection," she says.
"We've got diverted by the sensation of face transplants but something that interests me is what is happening digitally.
"Lots of people don't have sticky photo albums anymore. Their pictures are held digitally and they can be altered on Photoshop. People are enhancing their faces all the time.
"We are subtlely being conditioned by the digital face and heading towards a face which no human being could have been born with.
Ms Kemp wants society to reflect on what lies ahead
"This face is smooth and narrow, with a small jaw, big lips and manga Japanese eyes for the females."
Artists have added their own dark twist to the exhibition, by adding spooky qualities such as android-like eyes to the "perfect face".
These concerns appear to be echoed in the exhibition.
Professor Kemp fears the bombardment of digitally enhanced images in the media and on our PCs will lead us to lose the features which make the face unique.
"The more we smooth out our face, the more we are depriving it of its abilities," she says.
But the wider repercussions could be more significant. The exhibition hints that alterations to the face can have a huge impact on our conception of identity.
As Professor Kemp points out, the world's first hand transplant patient went on to have the limb amputated after appealing to surgeons to cut it off.
New Zealander Clint Hallam said it was like a dead man's hand and he felt "mentally detached" from it.
The way identity and face are entwined is further emphasised today in the use of biometric scanning and facial recognition for security purposes.
Future Face starts a long way behind that, by exploring how the face has been depicted and altered throughout history.
It opens with the declaration: "The face is our interface with the world. Through it we navigate personal, social and cultural spaces."
There is a blend of material from anatomy, portraiture, forensics, medicine and popular culture from pre-historic times to the present day.
Hollywood has been replicating faces for decades
Surprisingly, plastic surgery is not a new phenomenon.
As early as 600BC a Hindu surgeon reconstructed a nose by using a piece of cheek and by AD 1000 there was nose surgery using skin from the forehead.
But while Future Face can be sure about what has happened in the past, it raises more questions than answers about the future.
Dr Timothy Boon, head of collections at the museum, said: "Twenty years ago the Science Museum told us what to think, but this raises questions for people to think over.
"We could have produced a beautiful exhibition of portraits, but there is a grit of doubt, saying 'Do we really want to go here?'"
Future Face at the Science Museum runs until 13 February 2005.